Is soreness a sign of a good workout?
Someone asked me recently if their workout was still effective if they weren’t super sore after? They were under the impression that they had to be sore to call it a good workout.
So, I wanted to address the question “does being super sore or left “wrecked” after a workout mean you gained a lot of benefit from the workout?”
Before we dive into what makes a good workout, I’d like share a personal story of strength gains.
[September 2018] The last 6 months I’ve been training really hard. After spending 1.5 years recovering from my last pregnancy I finally felt like I could kick it up a notch. (I’m now 2 years postpartum.) Recovering from my second seemed harder than the first, but that makes sense. The more things get stretched out, the more work it takes to get them back. If you’ve had 3 kids, you’ll probably have to work a bit harder to get your body strong than if you’ve only had one. So, with each pregnancy comes a patiently-endured road to recovery… taking shortcuts on this process can hinder complete healing.
Ok, enough of that. So, at 1.5 years postpartum I am finally feeling like I could push it to the next level. Since I’m working harder now, my workouts should leave me feeling wrecked right? Well, not so fast. Training is all about overload and consistency and balancing both of those. A little “wrecked” is ok. You have to train hard - heavier weight, more volume - to gain strength. This is the overload principle. If you always stay at the same old resistance doing the same old exercises, there is no stimulus for your muscles to overcome and therefore get stronger.
So where does soreness come in? In my book, soreness mostly comes from too much overload. This can be from a novel movement, so you’re recruiting muscles differently and this different stress causes the soreness; or from simply too many reps or too much weight of a particular exercise. Soreness is caused by tears in the muscle. Now, before I make you panic, small tears in the muscle are good, this is how it gets stronger. The muscle repairs itself to be stronger than before. So, soreness is simply a larger tear in the muscle than would happen if you stopped just a bit sooner.
Both workouts cause damage and thus repair equalling greater strength, but being super sore is just a sign of a little more damage (and inflammation).
Since our goal is damage followed by repair to gain strength, wouldn’t super soreness be a good thing?
Well, no. And the reason why lies in consistency. Let’s say you damage/gain 5% by a well-planned workout where you feel the work and overload appropriately, but don’t feel super sore. You’ll feel good working out again later that week because your muscles haven’t sustained so much damage that they can’t recover quickly. So, then you gain another 5%. Still feeling good, you get in that 3rd and 4th workout during the week. Consistency! It’s a beautiful thing. That adds up to a 20% strength gain and progress for the week. (FYI. Totally just making up percentages to make the explanation easy to follow. It takes 4-6 weeks of effort to actually gain muscle.)
Now, let’s say you go to a ninja warrior course for the first time, instead of doing your perfectly planned progressive workout. The effort leaves you feeling super sore. You gain 8% with the workout because it was considerably harder. However, the soreness affects how you feel and move. You try to exercise again a couple of days later but you’re still too sore. You try again the day after that, but your body just doesn’t want to bring any effort. It takes a full 5 days for all the soreness to go away. So you get in only one more workout that week with a 5% gain. That makes the weekly total 13%.
Now, what if the soreness was purely from using a few different muscles in a novel way, so you actually gained less strength from it? That would leave you at a 3% gain for the workout and around 8% for the week.
So, sure, the novel workout left you sore. But it may or may not have made you gain more strength. It might have just been novel movement. Your overall gain from the week may be considerably less because the soreness set you back from your consistent training goals.
Do I think super soreness is a good thing? No! Does it happen sometimes? Sure! What’s the fun in working out consistently if you can’t test your strength on something fun like a ninja course? Just know that soreness in and of itself is not a sign of a good workout, it’s simply a sign of a little more damage.
If your goal is to break your body down so you “feel really sore” after a workout, it might be a good idea to rethink your training.
I haven’t been really sore once in the two years of training leading up to being able to tackle a ninja course! Two years of going from zero to strong, without any serious soreness. When I was “cleared for exercise” postpartum, I couldn’t even do one pullup. Consistent overload and effort doesn’t have to leave you feeling wrecked to gain considerable benefit!
The other really cool thing from taking so long to build a really stable base is that I’m stronger now than I ever was while competing as a college pole-vaulter. I chalk it up to poor coaching. The workouts were always too hard for me. My body was always sore and I never got a chance to properly recover. This led to breakdown and injuries, which led to decreased training time. The last two years have been incredibly consistent— and one of the main reasons is that I’ve been injury-free. When you feel great you can train hard and train consistently. It’s the combo of the two that gets you the results you’re looking for! Who says you can’t be in better shape at 37 than you were at 19? 😉 I know I am!
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